Donald Trump’s Russia story keeps changing

Donald Trump’s Russia story keeps changing

US President Donald Trump’s Russia problem is not going anywhere and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani spent the weekend making new bizarre revelations about the relationship.

The former New York mayor said Mr Trump was involved in discussions about building a Trump Tower Moscow throughout his 2016 presidential campaign.

“It’s our understanding that they went on throughout 2016 — there weren’t a lot of them, but there were conversations,” Mr Giuliani told NBC’s Meet The Press.

He told The New York TimesMr Trump had said negotiations to build a hotel in Russia were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won”.

That’s a major step forward from previous claims by the President’s associates that he was minimally involved in talks of a deal and that it was cancelled far earlier.

It would mean Mr Trump was still involved in a Russian deal when he called for an end to economic sanctions against the nation imposed by Barack Obama, gave interviews questioning the legitimacy of NATO, and called on Russia to release hacked Democratic emails.

Trump aides initially said the plans for a Moscow real estate deal ended well before the Republican primaries in February 2016, but they were forced to change that story.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller started investigating alleged collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia in May 2017.

Huge stakes are at play.

The Mueller investigation could find Mr Trump has done nothing wrong in which case there would be no consequences for the president.

If it finds Mr Trump broke the law, the Congress could impeach him or investigators could ask a grand jury to deem Mr Trump a conspirator and send a report to Congress.

The most aggressive option would be for Mr Trump to be indicted.

In November 2018, Mr Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the tower negotiations and Mr Mueller revealed the talks had extended until at least the middle of 2016.

Cohen said the discussions lasted until June 2016, the day the Washington Post claimed Russians had hacked Democrat computer, the first reported evidence of election meddling.

There was even talk between Cohen and Mr Trump of the presidential candidate travelling to Russia, according to court documents.

Mr Trump repeatedly denied having connections to Russia. In July 2016, he tweeted that he had “ZERO investments in Russia” and said, “The closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach.”

In October 2016, he added: “I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.”

After the announcement of Cohen’s guilty plea in November 2018, Mr Trump said: “He’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it … This deal was a very public deal. Everybody knows about this deal. I wasn’t trying to hide anything.”

He said that if he had not won the presidency, he could have pursued the deal.

Last week, Buzzfeed sensationally alleged Mr Trump had ordered Cohen to lie to Congress about the real estate deal — which would be a federal crime and potential grounds for impeachment.

They cited federal law enforcement sources’ evidence as well as documents and email allegedly obtained by the Special Counsel’s office.

But a spokesman for Mr Mueller called the report “inaccurate” in a rare statement. “Buzzfeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterisation of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” spokesman Peter Carr said.

Buzzfeed’s reporters have stood by their story, insisting their sources are “solid” and the story is accurate.

Editor-in-chief Ben Smith encouraged Mr Mueller’s office to clarify which statements they believed were “not accurate”, saying: “We are eager to understand which characterisations Mueller is talking about and obviously we take that incredibly seriously. We haven’t heard where the gap is and where we can continue our reporting to close it.”

Mr Giuliani’s statements over the past week have diluted the repeated denials by the Trump camp over discussions with Russia.

First, he said Mr Trump “never said there was no collusion”, did not collude in “any way, shape or form” and had no knowledge of collusion “by any of the thousands of people who worked on the campaign” — leaving open that possibility.

He also said the future president might have talked to Cohen before the lawyer’s testimony but never instructed him to lie.

The President “doesn’t remember the dates”, his lawyer told The Times. “He does remember conversations about Moscow. He does remember the letter of intent. He does remember, after that, fleeting conversations.”

Another damaging moment for Mr Trump last week came when it emerged that the FBI began investigating whether he was (wittingly or unwittingly) working on Russia’s behalf after his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Mr Mueller took over these strands of investigation, and his highly anticipated report could be released any day now. There are concerns from Democrats that William Barr — Mr Trump’s pick for Attorney-General — could hamper the completion of the investigation, but he has promised to allow its completion.

The Russia probe’s findings are the subject of intense speculation and it is hoped that Mr Mueller’s report will also be made public. The Democrats are also running their own investigations into Mr Trump’s business affairs and ties with Russia.

Several Trump aides and associates have already been indicted as a result of the probe. There is evidence members of his team and family had contact with Russia throughout the campaign and transition period, and some lied about this communication.

There is also evidence some of his advisers were discussing a possible email release from WikiLeaks during the campaign before it occurred.

US intelligence agencies and Mr Mueller have said Russia was the source of hacked material released by WikiLeaks that damaged Hillary Clinton’s chances.

The Russia question is not the only one bothering the President, with prosecutors in New York separately investigating allegations he directed Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Mr Trump.

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